Last year, a 29-year-old art school grad plastered Manhattan with posters for a would-be NYPD drone program, via Flickr/CC.
When the Federal Aviation Administration first released its list of agencies authorized to use drones in April 2012, there were two surprises: who was on the list, and who wasn’t. Noticeably absent? The New York City Police Department.
The NYPD, of course, is typically an early adopter of advanced surveillance equipment. It's also an open secret that New York's finest have been eyeing drones as prospective aerial surveillance tools. That the NYPD wasn't anywhere to be found on last year's FAA round up not only suggests that this sort of authorization list, which is meant to catalog all agencies exploring the use of unmanned aerial systems for police work, is not yet exhaustive; it brings the NYPD's rebuffing outside inquiries about its interest in drone technology into sharp relief. Ask for some details, and you'll likely get the run around.
Let's step back. To date, the FAA has released three lists of those government agencies that have applied for a drone license, formally called a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA). The FAA has been granting COAs since at least 2006, but it took two lawsuits from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to release even the names of agencies that had applied. There are a number of law enforcement agencies on the list: the FBI, obviously, as well as local bodies as large as the Seattle Police Department, the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff, and as small as the Ogden (Utah) Police Department and Grand Forks County (North Dakota) Sheriff.
Curiously, the NYPD was on none of the lists.
This struck many as odd, since police departments around the country often look to the NYPD for signs of which technologies are the next promising innovations for law enforcement. Since the September 11 attacks, the NYPD has developed one of the most advanced surveillance units in the world, with direct help from the CIA and plenty of cash to buy equipment like license plate readers and networked video cameras.
The FAA’s current rules and licensing procedures for unmanned aircraft would make it difficult for the NYPD to spin up a small-fry spy drone over Manhattan, for sure, at least for now. Agencies must first obtain a training waiver, which restricts flight operations to uninhabited areas. But police in large cities like Seattle and Miami all put in applications, presumably to develop expertise for whenever wider operations are approved down the road. The NYPD, too, must have at least looked into these tempting toys.
Sure enough, it has. Just don’t ask for specifics.
NYPD email to FAA, courtesy Duncan Osborne / Gay City News.
As part of the first round of the Drone Census, MuckRock sent the NYPD the same request for documents that it sent to more than 350 other agencies around the country, asking for records of any purchases of drone units, drone policies, and consultations on deploying these machines in the field. After nearly five months of stalling, the NYPD’s Freedom of Information unit finally responded in February 2013: That information is private.
In one of the more bizarre responses from the project so far, NYPD Lieutenant Richard Mantellino, Records Access Officer, asserted that the requested documents could not be released. In Mantellino's words, "release of such documents would represent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." While the irony of pleading privacy on the topic of surveillance drones was not lost on anyone, MuckRock’s appeal was rejected on a technicality of postmark date, so no documents were forthcoming.
Now, beside a strong hunch and the NYPD’s technological track record, there is also verified evidence that the NYPD has consulted with federal authorities on drones. In August 2011, Gay City News obtained a December 2010 email from the NYPD to the FAA, in which a detective from the Counterterrorism Division wrote, “Currently, we are in the basic stages of investigating the possible use of UAV’s [unmanned aerial vehicles] as a law enforcement tool.”
Asked about drones in a January 2013 interview with Reuters editor Stephen Adler, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly reportedly responded, “We’re looking into it. Anything that helps us.” Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also prophesied that drones will be in NYC before too long.
So it was doubly baffling when the NYPD rejected MuckRock’s latest records request. Instead of a privacy rebuff, the department weakly said that the request was too vague: In a form rejection letter, Lt. Mantellino answered, “I am unable to provide access to these documents on the basis that your request does not reasonably describe a record in a manner that would enable a search to be conducted.”
This is a tactic familiar to anyone who asks the NYPD for documents on a regular basis, particularly around surveillance practices. The MuckRock request is anything but vague. It comprises five categories of documents and 20 targeted documents of interest. There are three sub-bullets in the request on emails alone, including for emails between the chief and the governor or mayor on using drones. The NYPD is dodging this one on flimsy grounds just like it’s dodged so many records requests in the past.
New York’s finest are in good company when it comes to keeping drone inquiries under wraps. The CIA adorably “can neither confirm nor deny” details of its widely dissected weaponized drone program, and the Seattle police kept its purchase of two drones under wraps for a year and a half, even from the mayor and city council. After considerable backlash and heated public forums, the mayor ordered police to shut down all drone training and ship their drones back to the manufacturer.
Similarly, Boston police said it had no documents in response to MuckRock’s request, even after Chief Ed Davis was widely quoted as saying “Drones are an interesting technology” and “an inexpensive way to get up high and to give the officers information that they need” in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Boston police had already released one email from the chief’s office on drones just weeks earlier. Dip and dodge.
Revelations after-the-fact rarely pretty up an agency’s reputation of transparency, and law enforcement that try to navigate these controversial issues behind closed doors are doing themselves no favors. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has prescribed openness as one of its core guidelines on using drones, advising agencies considering the technology to first “engage their community early in the planning process.”
The NYPD and all law enforcement agencies owe it to the people they serve to be forthright on drones. The Drone Census is committed to bringing to light all current and planned deployments of drone technology as a way of facilitating these critical exchanges between the government and its citizens.